|John Coulter at the Battle of the Boyne
Visitors Centre at Oldbridge in Co Meath.
There will be no platform proceedings at the so-called ‘demonstration fields’ as took place in 2019 pre-Covid.
Ireland, north and south, has suffered greatly because of the pandemic, and the experts are now warning us that we are in a fourth wave because of the so-called Delta variant.
Again, in spite of all the death and tragedy which the pandemic has inflicted on this island, can there be lessons which the Orange Order’s ruling body, the Grand Lodge of Ireland, can take from organising parades if, as a society, we have to face the reality of ‘living with Covid’?
My late father, Rev Dr Robert Coulter MBE, served as a Deputy Imperial Grand Chaplain in both the Orange and its senior order, the Royal Black Institution. Indeed, in the 1980s, he served a three-year term as Assistant Sovereign Grand Master of the Black.
In these various Loyal Order roles, he would make frequent trips to the Republic of Ireland to preach at annual divine services in churches. Likewise, as a Presbyterian minister, he also preached in numerous churches across the Donegal Presbytery for several years.
In spite of the legion of Loyal Order events he attended during his lifetime, there was one occasion he chatted about perhaps the most to me - the annual pre-Twelfth demonstration at Rossnowlagh in County Donegal.
The Rossnowlagh demonstration was held in that picturesque coastal village on the Saturday before 12 July and was hosted by the Southern Irish border county lodges to allow them to attend the main Twelfth demonstrations in Northern Ireland on 12 July itself.
The parade route was neither long nor contentious. In my various writings on the event, I have often referred to it as the ‘Donegal Dander.’
Pipe and silver bands, rather than the traditional Northern-based flute bands - often known as blood and thunder bands - are the order of the day. There are no political speeches, and the platform proceedings take the form of a purely religious service.
And no trip to the Rossnowlagh ‘Twelfth’ would be complete without an ice cream and another dander along the village’s beautiful beach.
In spite of the long drive from our home in the County Antrim hills to Rossnowlagh as dad was the guest preacher that Saturday, dad and I could not fail to appreciate the relaxed family atmosphere of the Rossnowlagh ‘demonstration.’
Perhaps this is the reason, pre-Covid, that the Rossnowlagh event has grown in popularity over the decades as an increasing number of Northerners have attended the County Donegal Grand Orange Lodge’s prestigious ‘outing’.
One of the hallmark phrases of the Troubles has been ‘contentious parades’. From time to time, all the organisations which comprise the Loyal Orders - Orange, Black and Apprentice Boys - have all had to deal with opposition to parade routes. Indeed, Drumcree in Portadown, which began in 1995, has still not been resolved.
My own political ideology of Revolutionary Unionism, which I have been developing since 1994, focuses on trying to get Unionism and Loyalism to ‘think outside the box’ and recognise its Southern Irish heritage, culture and historical identity.
In short, could the ‘Rossnowlagh Model’ be used as a blueprint, not just for future parades in Northern Ireland, but to increase the number of Loyal Order parades in the Republic of Ireland? The two key pillars of the success of Rossnowlagh are a short parade route, and only a religious service.
The vast majority of Unionists and Loyalists view the Northern Ireland Protocol as a threat to their British identity. But for generations, many of those same Unionists and Loyalists have seemingly ignored their rich Southern Irish culture.
Put bluntly, half of the key battles referred to in that famous marching tune, The Sash, took place in Southern Ireland. The Boyne of 1690 was at County Meath, while the decisive and exceptionally bloody battle of Aughrim in July 1691 was fought in County Galway.
Again put bluntly, how many Unionists and Loyalists have regularly visited - or even once - the excellent Battle of the Boyne Visitors Centre at Oldbridge in Co Meath.
As a location for a fantastic family fun day out, the River Boyne, and especially the facilities of the visitors centre is exceptionally highly rated.
Ironically, it was only the smaller Independent Orange Order which managed to stage a parade at the Boyne to mark the Tercentenary of the battle some years ago.
If the Orange’s ruling body calls itself the Grand Lodge of Ireland, then it should be giving more recognition to organising Rossnowlagh-style parades south of the Irish Border. Could the ‘Donegal Dander’ being one way of making the Twelfth celebrations more inclusive for all sections of the community?
The challenge for the Orders is not just to make their parades more inclusive to a nationalist audience, but also to the increasingly liberal progressive section of Protestantism, as well as the growing ethnic communities within the island of Ireland.
In the Eighties, I recall reporting on the meeting of the Grand Black Chapter of the British Commonwealth at Lurgan in County Armagh at which representatives from the Royal Black Institution from the African states of Togo and Ghana were present.
Many Unionists and Loyalists seem to conveniently forget that King Billy’s elite troops at the Boyne were the Dutch Royal Blues, who were predominantly Catholic.
When the pope of the day, Alexander the Eighth, heard about William’s victory at the Boyne, he ordered a Te Deum to be commemorated at the Vatican as the Williamite victory firmly put the brakes on the tyrant Catholic King Louis of France’s ambitions to overthrow the Papacy.
Even William delayed his army’s advance on Dublin after the Boyne victory to allow time for his Catholic opponent, King James, to escape Ireland.
The Williamite campaign in Ireland paved the way for modern parliamentary democracy across the British Isles, a campaign known as the Glorious Revolution, much of which was achieved in what is Southern Ireland today.
Historically, it ended the tyrannical rule of Absolute Monarchy in Great Britain, and in Europe, it saved the Papacy from annihilation by the dictator Louis of France.
Pre-Covid, the traditional Sham Fight re-enactment of the Boyne battle in the Northern village of Scarva each 13 July is known to attract some 60,000 participants and spectators as the traditional marching season switches from events staged by the Orange to those of the Black.
In helping the economy of the island recover in a post Covid society, how much money could be generated for local businesses if another Sham Fight could be staged annually at Oldbridge in County Meath?
In spite of the pain of the pandemic, the Loyal Orders have been reached a gift horse on a plate in the battle to make their events more inclusive - culturally, historically, spiritually, and family-wise. Hopefully, they will have the good sense to seize this opportunity and implement a future ‘Rossnowagh Model.’
Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter
Listen to commentator Dr John Coulter’s programme, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 10.15 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM. Listen online.